Messiaen's symphony marries East with West

When the Atlanta Symphony performs Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-symphonie this week, audiences can experience the additional treat of a pre-concert performance by the Emory Gamelan Percussion Ensemble — some 18 musicians performing on gongs, drums, and xylophonelike instruments from Surakarta, Java. Gamelan music is usually used to accompany dances, shadow-puppet plays and royal festivities in Bali and Indonesia.

Messiaen had access to Javanese gamelan instruments at the Paris Conservatoire and heard a Balinese orchestra perform at the French world exposition in 1931. He incorporated his impression of those sounds into his Turangalîla-symphonie of 1948. The work is also influenced by bird song, Eastern philosophy, numerology and French Catholic mysticism.

Steve Everett, who directs the Emory ensemble, says that Messiaen didn't try to re-create the structure of gamelan. Instead, he used a group of Western instruments within the orchestra to create "a sonority that represents the gamelan sound," says Everett.

The Turangalîla-symphonie also includes an "ondes martenot," an unusual early 20th- century electronic instrument. (Radiohead's multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood played it on three of the band's albums.)

The music itself is as exotic as its instrumental forces and Sanskrit title. According to the composer, "Lîla" literally means "the play of divine action upon the cosmos," and "Turanga" is "time that runs and flows," like a galloping horse or sand in an hourglass. "Turangalîla," says Messiaen, "therefore means all at once: love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death."

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla- symphonie at Symphony Hall, Thurs.-Sat., April. 15-17. $19-$50.